The Virginians, by William Makepeace Thackeray

CHAPTER XI

Wherein the two Georges prepare for Blood

The Virginian Colonel remained in one chamber of the tavern, occupied with gloomy preparations for the ensuing meeting; his adversary in the other room thought fit to make his testamentary dispositions, too, and dictated, by his obedient brother and secretary, a grandiloquent letter to his mother, of whom, and by that writing, he took a solemn farewell. She would hardly, he supposed, pursue the scheme which she had in view (a peculiar satirical emphasis was laid upon the scheme which she had in view), after the event of that morning, should he fall, as, probably, would be the case.

“My dear, dear George, don’t say that!” cried the affrighted secretary.

“‘As probably will be the case,’” George persisted with great majesty. “You know what a good shot Colonel George is, Harry. I, myself, am pretty fair at a mark, and ’tis probable that one or both of us will drop. —‘I scarcely suppose you will carry out the intentions you have at present in view.’” This was uttered in a tone of still greater bitterness than George had used even in the previous phrase. Harry wept as he took it down.

“You see I say nothing; Madame Esmond’s name does not even appear in the quarrel. Do you not remember in our grandfather’s life of himself, how he says that Lord Castlewood fought Lord Mohun on a pretext of a quarrel at cards? and never so much as hinted at the lady’s name, who was the real cause of the duel? I took my hint, I confess, from that, Harry. Our mother is not compromised in the — Why, child, what have you been writing, and who taught thee to spell?” Harry had written the last words “in view,” in vew, and a great blot of salt water from his honest, boyish eyes may have obliterated some other bad spelling.

“I can’t think about the spelling now, Georgy,” whimpered George’s clerk. “I’m too miserable for that. I begin to think, perhaps it’s all nonsense, perhaps Colonel George never ——”

“Never meant to take possession of Castlewood; never gave himself airs, and patronised us there; never advised my mother to have me flogged, never intended to marry her; never insulted me, and was insulted before the king’s officers; never wrote to his brother to say we should be the better for his parental authority? The paper is there,” cried the young man, slapping his breast-pocket, “and if anything happens to me, Harry Warrington, you will find it on my corse!”

“Write yourself, Georgy, I can’t write,” says Harry, digging his fists into his eyes, and smearing over the whole composition, bad spelling and all, with his elbows.

On this, George, taking another sheet of paper, sate down at his brother’s place, and produced a composition in which he introduced the longest words, the grandest Latin quotations, and the most profound satire of which the youthful scribe was master. He desired that his negro boy, Sady, should be set free; that his Horace, a choice of his books, and, if possible, a suitable provision should be made for his affectionate tutor, Mr. Dempster; that his silver fruit-knife, his music-books, and harpsichord, should be given to little Fanny Mountain; and that his brother should take a lock of his hair, and wear it in memory of his ever fond and faithfully attached George. And he sealed the document with the seal of arms that his grandfather had worn.

“The watch, of course, will be yours,” said George, taking out his grandfather’s gold watch, and looking at it. “Why, two hours and a-half are gone! ’Tis time that Sady should be back with the pistols. Take the watch, Harry dear.”

“It’s no good!” cried out Harry, flinging his arms round his brother. “If he fights you, I’ll fight him, too. If he kills my Georgy, —— him, he shall have a shot at me!” and the poor lad uttered more than one of those expressions, which are said peculiarly to affect recording angels, who have to take them down at celestial chanceries.

Meanwhile, General Braddock’s new aide-de-camp had written five letters in his large resolute hand, and sealed them with his seal. One was to his mother, at Mount Vernon; one to his brother; one was addressed M. C. only; and one to his Excellency, Major-General Braddock. “And one, young gentleman, is for your mother, Madam Esmond,” said the boys’ informant.

Again the recording angel had to fly off with a violent expression, which parted from the lips of George Warrington. The chancery previously mentioned was crowded with such cases, and the messengers must have been for ever on the wing. But I fear for young George and his oath there was no excuse; for it was an execration uttered from a heart full of hatred, and rage, and jealousy.

It was the landlord of the tavern who communicated these facts to the young men. The Captain had put on his old militia uniform to do honour to the occasion, and informed the boys that the Colonel was walking up and down the garden a-waiting for ’em, and that the Reg’lars was a’most sober, too, by this time.

A plot of ground near the Captain’s log-house had been enclosed with shingles, and cleared for a kitchen-garden; there indeed paced Colonel Washington, his hands behind his back, his head bowed down, a grave sorrow on his handsome face. The negro servants were crowded at the palings, and looking over. The officers under the porch had wakened up also, as their host remarked. Captain Waring was walking, almost steadily, under the balcony formed by the sloping porch and roof of the wooden house; and Captain Grace was lolling over the railing, with eyes which stared very much, though perhaps they did not see very clearly. Benson’s was a famous rendezvous for cock-fights, horse-matches, boxing, and wrestling-matches, such as brought the Virginian country-folks together. There had been many brawls at Benson’s, and men who came thither sound and sober, had gone thence with ribs broken and eyes gouged out. And squires, and farmers, and negroes, all participated in the sport.

There, then, stalked the tall young Colonel, plunged in dismal meditation. There was no way out of his scrape, but the usual cruel one, which the laws of honour and the practice of the country ordered. Goaded into fury by the impertinence of a boy, he had used insulting words. The young man had asked for reparation. He was shocked to think that George Warrington’s jealousy and revenge should have rankled in the young fellow so long but the wrong had been the Colonel’s, and he was bound to pay the forfeit.

A great hallooing and shouting, such as negroes use, who love noise at all times, and especially delight to yell and scream when galloping on horseback, was now heard at a distance, and all the heads, woolly and powdered, were turned in the direction of this outcry. It came from the road over which our travellers had themselves passed three hours before, and presently the clattering of a horse’s hoofs was heard, and now Mr. Sady made his appearance on his foaming horse, and actually fired a pistol off in the midst of a prodigious uproar from his woolly brethren. Then he fired another pistol off, to which noises Sady’s horse, which had carried Harry Warrington on many a hunt, was perfectly accustomed; and now he was in the courtyard, surrounded by a score of his bawling comrades, and was descending amidst fluttering fowls and turkeys, kicking horses and shrieking frantic pigs; and brother-negroes crowded round him, to whom he instantly began to talk and chatter.

“Sady, sir, come here!” roars out Master Harry.

“Sady, come here! Confound you!” shouts Master George. (Again the recording angel is in requisition, and has to be off on one of his endless errands to the register office.) “Come directly, mas’r,” says Sady, and resumes his conversation with his woolly brethren. He grins. He takes the pistols out of the holster. He snaps the locks. He points them at a grunter, which plunges through the farmyard. He points down the road, over which he has just galloped, and towards which the woolly heads again turn. He says again, “Comin’, mas’r. Everybody a-comin’.” And now, the gallop of other horses is heard. And who is yonder? Little Mr. Dempster, spurring and digging into his pony; and that lady in a riding-habit on Madam Esmond’s little horse, can it be Madam Esmond? No. It is too stout. As I live it is Mrs. Mountain on Madam’s grey!

“O Lor! O Golly! Hoop! Here dey come! Hurray!” A chorus of negroes rises up. “Here dey are!” Dr. Dempster and Mrs. Mountain have clattered into the yard, have jumped from their horses, have elbowed through the negroes, have rushed into the house, have run through it and across the porch, where the British officers are sitting in muzzy astonishment; have run down the stairs to the garden where George and Harry are walking, their tall enemy stalking opposite to them; and almost ere George Warrington has had time sternly to say, “What do you do here, madam?” Mrs. Mountain has flung her arms round his neck and cries: “Oh, George, my darling! It’s a mistake! It’s a mistake, and is all my fault!”

“What’s a mistake?” asks George, majestically separating himself from the embrace.

“What is it, Mounty?” cries Harry, all of a tremble.

“That paper I took out of his portfolio, that paper I picked up, children; where the Colonel says he is going to marry a widow with two children. Who should it be but you, children, and who should it be but your mother?”

“Well?”

“Well, it’s — it’s not your mother. It’s that little widow Custis whom the Colonel is going to marry. He’d always take a rich one; I knew he would. It’s not Mrs. Rachel Warrington. He told Madam so today, just before he was going away, and that the marriage was to come off after the campaign. And — and your mother is furious, boys. And when Sady came for the pistols, and told the whole house how you were going to fight, I told him to fire the pistols off; and I galloped after him, and I’ve nearly broken my poor old bones in coming to you.”

“I have a mind to break Mr. Sady’s,” growled George. “I specially enjoined the villain not to say a word.”

“Thank God he did, brother!” said poor Harry. “Thank God he did!”

“What will Mr. Washington and those gentlemen think of my servant telling my mother at home that I was going to fight a duel?” asks Mr. George, still in wrath.

“You have shown your proofs before, George,” says Harry, respectfully. “And, thank Heaven, you are not going to fight our old friend — our grandfather’s old friend. For it was a mistake and there is no quarrel now, dear, is there? You were unkind to him under a wrong impression.”

“I certainly acted under a wrong impression,” owns George, “but ——”

“George! George Washington!” Harry here cries out, springing over the cabbage-garden towards the bowling-green, where the Colonel was stalking, and though we cannot hear him, we see him, with both his hands out, and with the eagerness of youth, and with a hundred blunders, and with love and affection thrilling in his honest voice we imagine the lad telling his tale to his friend.

There was a custom in those days which has disappeared from our manners now, but which then lingered. When Harry had finished his artless story, his friend the Colonel took him fairly to his arms, and held him to his heart: and his voice faltered as he said, “Thank God, thank God for this!”

“Oh, George,” said Harry, who felt now how he loved his friend with all his heart, “how I wish I was going with you on the campaign!” The other pressed both the boy’s hands, in a grasp of friendship, which each knew never would slacken.

Then the Colonel advanced, gravely holding out his hand to Harry’s elder brother. Perhaps Harry wondered that the two did not embrace as he and the Colonel had just done. But, though hands were joined, the salutation was only formal and stern on both sides.

“I find I have done you a wrong, Colonel Washington,” George said, “and must apologise, not for the error, but for much of my late behaviour which has resulted from it.”

“The error was mine! It was I who found that paper in your room, and showed it to George, and was jealous of you, Colonel. All women are jealous,” cried Mrs. Mountain.

“’Tis a pity you could not have kept your eyes off my paper, madam,” said Mr. Washington. “You will permit me to say so. A great deal of mischief has come because I chose to keep a secret which concerned only myself and another person. For a long time George Warrington’s heart has been black with anger against me, and my feeling towards him has, I own, scarce been more friendly. All this pain might have been spared to both of us, had my private papers only been read by those for whom they were written. I shall say no more now, lest my feelings again should betray me into hasty words. Heaven bless thee, Harry! Farewell, George! And take a true friend’s advice, and try and be less ready to think evil of your friends. We shall meet again at the camp, and will keep our weapons for the enemy. Gentlemen! if you remember this scene tomorrow, you will know where to find me.” And with a very stately bow to the English officers, the Colonel left the abashed company, and speedily rode away.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07